BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
A wildly flashy musical version of a 1994 cult film, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” sashayed into the Palace on Sunday, all fun, fantastic frocks and fabulousness – but not really all that much heart.
Whether Broadway tourists will clasp the extremely gay-gay-gay extravaganza to their collective bosom remains to be seen, but certainly fans of TV’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” series will thrill to this nearly ceaseless procession of glitzy production numbers parading along a straight-on narrative.
Three different kinds of Australian drag divas hop a beat-up bus for a journey across the continent to perform at a nightclub.
Adam (Nick Adams) is the brash youngster who gaily cross-dresses as the flamboyant Felicia. The old guard of female illusionist is embodied by Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), a grand dame in every transsexual way. Between those points on the age and gender compass is 30-something Tick (Will Swenson), anxious about meeting his six-year-old son at the end of the road.
Amid various brawls and breakdowns in the bleak Outback en route to their gig, the squabbling artistes eventually grow into chums.
Rather than creating original songs, the show’s makers, Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, have licensed a jukebox jammed with over 20 dance floor favorites including “It’s Raining Men,” “I Love the Nightlife,” “Shake Your Groove Thing” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Since Adam idolizes Madonna, several of Madge’s greatest hits are featured. With nine musicians in the orchestra pit, the pop hits are heavily synthesized.
It’s not a traditional Broadway sound, but then, the loud and lush “Priscilla” is crafted in the style of “Mamma Mia” and “Rock of Ages,” which are more like mega-cartoons with songs rather than musicals.
“Priscilla” skimps on sincerity in its musical storytelling to provide instead a somewhat overwhelming cavalcade of madly ga-ga couture and feverish choreography deployed in wacko production numbers. While costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner dream up some indescribably amazing outfits, one wonders how the drag divas were able to stitch together such elaborate get-ups in the back of their bus.
Speaking of the bus, production designer Brian Thomson makes that not-so-humble vehicle into a key player as it pivots, careens, discloses its frou-frou interior and even lights up in rainbow colors.
The show’s leads are very likeable. An Aussie theater veteran, Sheldon wittily portrays the genteel yet gutsy Bernadette with steely poise and a razor edge beneath her ladylike demeanor while resembling, at certain angles, Uta Lemper on steroids. Ripped in physique, wide-eyed in his airy manner, Adams depicts his brazen Adam/Felicia character with impressive agility and a cheerful sense of bitchiness. Last seen on Broadway as the hunky Berger in “Hair,” Swenson ably conveys how Tick is the most well-grounded one among the trio, which makes that character’s delirious whirl through the green-drenched “MacArthur Park” fantasy sequence (dancing cupcakes!) a particularly funny episode.
Whipped into “Broadway Bares”-style proficiency by production supervisor Jerry Mitchell, the hard-working ensemble of buff men and women expertly sing, dance, serve various character bits and wear those dazzling costumes with panache. A bearded C. David Johnson is a loveable lug as the mechanic who goes along for the ride while J. Elaine Marcos does a “Pop Music” ping-pong ballistics bit that has to be seen to be believed.
Paring some of the crazy excess from director Simon Phillips’ over-the-top production likely could make “Priscilla” a more exhilarating affair – frankly, watching the show can be an exhausting experience — but this mountain of madcap frivolousness surely remains a sight to behold.
“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” continues at the Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway at 47th Street, New York. Call (877) 250-2929 or visit www.priscillaonbroadway.com.